“I always enjoyed playing ball, and it didn’t matter to me whether I played with white kids or Black. I never understood why an issue was made of who I played with, and I never felt comfortable, when I grew up, telling other people how to act,” said legendary baseball player Willie Mays. But there was a time when Blacks could not play America’s pastime. The Brooklyn Dodgers was the first team to integrate when Jackie Robinson became a Dodger in 1947.
And while many strides have been made in the sport—on the field and behind the scenes—participation by African Americans has been decreasing. In fact, according to new research by USA Today Sports, there are just 8.05% African-Americans in the sport. Unbelievably, this is actually fewer than in 1959—when the Boston Red Sox was the last team to integrate—when there were 17.25% Blacks in baseball.
The drop in Blacks participating in America’s favorite pastime has even affected college-level teams. According to 2009-10 stats, only 5.6 % of Division I college baseball players are Black. A recent article in The News Observer found that Historically Black Colleges or Universities (HBCUs) are recruiting white players to fill up the team roster due to a lack of interest in the game by Black students. “Last season, white baseball players outnumbered African-Americans at five of the nine HBCUs that play baseball in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference,” discovered the News Observer. Now Major League Baseball and the Chicago White Sox are trying to boost the number of minorities behind the scenes. They are co-hosting the first-ever “MLB Diversity Business Summit” on July 24th at the Hyatt Regency McCormick Place in Chicago. The goal of the summit will connect minority suppliers with Human Resource and Procurement executives from MLB’s Central Office, all 30 MLB Clubs, MLB Network, MLB Advanced Media and Minor League Baseball Clubs.
“The Major League Baseball Diversity Business Summit is something that has been in the works for some time, and the initial plan was to launch the inaugural event in 2011 in conjunction with another MLB event. However, we determined that a dedicated, singular event would be more effective and reach a wider audience,” says Wendy Lewis, senior vice president, Diversity & Strategic Alliances. “Our objective is to enhance overall diversity and inclusion throughout our industry. Our focus for this summit is providing the unprecedented access to job-seekers and business owners who are interested in becoming involved in our industry.”
And while the summit is focusing on off-the-field positions, Lewis says there are encouraging signs on and off the field. “This is a business summit for employment and procurement opportunities, so our focus is directed off-the-field. However, it was encouraging to see the number of African-American players selected in the first round – the most since 1992 – of the MLB First-Year Player Draft. We have two fantastic initiatives in the Reviving Baseball in Cities program and MLB Urban Youth Academy that are designed to help in this are,” she says.
Do such diversity summits actually cause change? Lewis hopes so. “Time will tell. Not only is this our inaugural Diversity Business Summit, but also it will be the first time in professional sports that an event like this has been staged at this diversity-engagement level,” she says.